A little less conversation...

Henry David Thoreau. I'll admit, I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy. If you’ve ever taken an American Literature class in college, you know that they usually split the subject matter into two distinct periods and teach those periods in different classes with the Civil War being considered a natural border between the two. Having been an English major in college, I was basically required to take both classes and I have a rather well formed opinion on these two periods of American Literature. ALMOST everything written in America before the Civil War was crap. There were some notable exceptions: E. A. Poe and the naturalists/transcendentalists (among which, Thoreau was one of the most prominent) come readily to mind, as do some of the nation’s founding documents as simple and beautifully phrased prose. These are the exceptions, though, and don’t really make up for the mind-numbing boredom of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or the diaries of Miles Standish. I contend that these are not literary achievements and are only included in the canon of American literature because there’s nothing else from that period. I can hardly blame this nation’s early residents for their dearth of creativity and inspiration. They were coming from the cities and towns of Europe to the wilderness of this continent, and survival took precedence over art. Once we were more established and the industrial revolution hit, easier living allowed for artists like Thoreau to start writing some amazing stuff.

Go ahead and call him a hypocrite for leaving out the facts in Walden that he probably wouldn’t have survived if people hadn’t been bringing him food and supporting his 1800s episode of Survivor. The fact remains that it is the seminal work of American naturalism and was written a century before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. In fact, it could be argued that Thoreau planted seeds with his writing that had more effect on the world we see today than most of our politicians put together since the Constitution was ratified. Just try to go one day without hearing or seeing the word “green” being used in a form other than to describe a spectrum of visible light. Thoreau may not be able to take all the credit, but he was there at the beginning.

Thoreau’s other most famous work has had even more far-reaching influence. Civil Disobedience described the system by which non-violent protest and lawlessness could be used to spark change in political bodies. His own political views aside (Thoreau could probably be described as a cross between libertarian and anarchist), his ideas about civil disobedience formed the toolbox with which Gandhi and MLK deconstructed the barriers put up against their advancement. Again, these steps were taken a century after HDT put them to paper, showing just how far ahead of his time he was. Like I said, I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the guy.

That said, I’m getting a little bit sick of the more recent fruits of his labor with respect to the more modern incarnations of protest. Since we’ve now become a shouting culture, people are using protest as a means of shouting louder, and most of it is amounting only to sound and fury. Peaceful demonstration worked for Gandhi and MLK, and I’m glad of it, but government has a pretty good learning curve when it comes to keeping power out of the hands of the people, and has wrested control of protest from the people. Modern protests follow one of two paths: they are either generated directly from those in power to shout at those whose politics run counter to their own, or they are real protests from people who really care about issues and which are either ignored or squelched by those in power.

Try to think of a recent protest that accomplished anything other than getting media coverage. I didn’t see the Iraq war ending when liberals took to the streets of D.C. Ahmedinijad is still president. The stimulus got passed and tax day still happened despite the tea-baggers. The current town-hall protests are only a distraction to keep us from seeing the insurance industry buying off politicians to stop change. Bush became president despite protests against the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. The list goes on and on.

Up next as a protest that’s going to accomplish absolutely nothing is the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, my fair city. Remember how effective the WTO protests in Seattle were? Do you even remember the WTO protests in Seattle? In fact, all I remember is that some people really didn’t like the WTO, and a lot of people got hurt. I’m pretty sure that’s all that’s going to happen here.

Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with the plight of the Third World. I’m a humanist… I believe that everyone should have the right to dignity and a good standard of living. I also believe in helping those who need help when we can. Additionally, I’m a realist who recognizes that there are some countries in the world in which every known form of aide has been tried and has failed due to one thing or another from corrupt governments keeping aide away from the people to aide crops driving down the price of locally grown crops and preventing an economy from building itself.

Ever since the G20 was announced for Pittsburgh, I’ve seen at least one news item per week about how protesters plan to thwart any crackdown and how police and the city government plan to minimize protester visibility/activity. Here’s a newsflash protesters: the people whose attention you’re shouting for are going to completely ignore your two minute’s hate. Governments are wise to protests and they just don’t care. If you want to make a difference, why not do something directly that may get noticed for being positive… and the news cameras won’t have to see you crying with mace in your eyes and baton welts on your body. An idea off the top of my head, why not fundraise and sign people up to provide micro-loans to Third-World business people? Why not help teach workers, like those in Argentina (by the way, if you listen to the NPR story linked here, just try not to tear up a little when the woman from the suit factory echoes the cry of the textile workers of Lawrence, MA who wanted bread, yes, but also roses) to take production into their own hands and make a better life. I know shouting and throwing a tantrum is easier, but change isn’t easy. Anyone who protests, but doesn’t volunteer to make life better in some way goes in my “toddler holding his/her breath” box.


  1. As if to illustrate my point, here's an article in today's Pgh Post-Gazette about protesters who espouse nothing other than being vaguely against the G20 and wanting to "fill the jails" because their protest permits haven't been approved quickly enough. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09231/991787-482.stm

  2. Wow... I definitely agree that the objective of protesting has completely lost the point... is seems like it's just a huge waste of time. Personally, I ignore the cookie-cutter local TV news about protesters because it appears the only people who care are local news TV anchors, and those people are replicants.

    Making a difference isn't shouting about something to make your voice heard. It all turns into noise to those who should hear it. I would prefer to make a difference in one person's life by donating a winter coat to a dad who needs it more than me than bitch and moan about how natural gas prices have made it impossible to heat a home. Do something positive, even if you're not noticed for it, your karma will thank you.


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